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All posts for the month January, 2012

BBA Challenge #6: Challah

Published January 31, 2012 by livinggraciously

My friend Nathan claims that this is the best bread in the Jewish tradition, so I feel kind of bad that I didn’t make it on a day when he was going to be here.

As for me, I have never met a challah that I didn’t think was just…okay. It’s just not a favorite of mine. But it’s the next bread, so it was time to try it.

The recipe called for 7-9 ounces of water, and I know some people have written that they had to use all the water. I, on the other hand, used only 7 ounces, but then had to add at least another ounce or two of flour to it in order to get to the dough to be anything but a wet mess.

Even then, after the first knead, the dough still looked kind of batter-like:

After an hour of rising, the directions were not to just punch down the dough, but to actually knead it for two minutes. After that, it looked much more like bread dough:

And another 90 minutes of rising:

Now, I could have just made a loaf, but the challah tradition calls for braiding. Which calls for dividing the dough into thirds. After some consideration, I decided that the most accuracy was just plain pie chart thirds.

Then I rolled them out and braided the three strands. At which point I realized that my braid was a little long. So we had a challah rainbow.

And then baked:

A good crumb and decent crust.

The eaters pronounced it delicious. I thought it was … perfectly okay for challah. It’s never going to be my favorite bread, but it’s pretty easy and will probably make a decent sandwich bread.

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BBA Challenge #5: Casatiello

Published January 24, 2012 by livinggraciously

This week’s bread was the first one with which I was completely unfamiliar. Casatiello is an Italian version of brioche. It decreases the amount of butter in the bread, but replaces it with cheese and cured meat.

How bad can that be?

For the cheese, I chose a nice aged Gouda: strong enough to carry the bread without being overpowering. For the meat, I decided against salami or sausage and decided to go with a really nice, thick cut Amish bacon.

I realized I had a problem when I pulled out the cast iron frying pan. Suddenly husband, daughter, and daughter’s girlfriend were all in the kitchen. “Bacon…?” they asked, eyes wild.

Fortunately, I’d purchased lots of bacon. So the first batch went to the ravening wolves I call family. Once they were satisfied, I was able to cook up bacon chunks–and threaten the fingers of anyone thinking about nibbling.

These were the add-ins for the bread:

Yup, that’s gonna be one healthy loaf!

When it was all kneaded together, it looked like this

After rising, the instructions were to put it in loaf pans or a brioche pan, but it was really too soft for a loaf, so I used a springform pan instead:

You can see the air pockets in the bread, which look good buy also say “no good gluten skin,” meaning that it’s not going to form up well as a loaf. Definitely well-served by the springform.

It came out of the oven very pretty:

And once it cooled, the crumb was nice:

As for the flavor, it was pronounced delicious, with the one suggestion that it needed more bacon. The book says that the “coarsely grated cheese” will result in little pockets of cheesy goodness, but I found that it melted into the bread pretty evenly. Perhaps Reinhart has a cheese grater that has even larger holes than mine. Overall, it was a favorite–and won’t appear on our table very often because of its richness!

Oh, and while all this was going on, I was also making my regular sourdough bread. Despite my attempt at making the two breads follow each other into the oven, it was clear that they were both going to be oven-ready at the same time. Once again, I got to use my lower oven. Though I thought early on that maybe it had been a silly thing to want, it’s turning out the be very handy! Both breads came out of the oven within 15 minutes of each other.

I call that a successful baking day!

Gluten hysteria is just that

Published January 12, 2012 by livinggraciously

In the long quest to find The Answer To All Diets, people rush from one fad to the next, one year embracing cabbage soup, the next eating nothing but bacon and steak. One year gulping down juice fasts, the next eschewing fruit entirely. We want the golden ticket, the easy fix. And every guru who comes down the road with proclamations of the One True Way leads people in his or her path, the newest Pied Piper.

Eventually people grow tired of eating in the prescribed way and drop out of the parade, feeling like failures. Then the voices of science and reason begin to penetrate the insanity, and most people return to their previous weights, discouraged and cynical, but waiting for the next bandwagon to jump aboard.

Currently, that bandwagon is gluten. Gluten is the Great Poisoner of People. We’re told that the staff of life is EEEEEVIL, and that we can all be thin if we just stop eating bread. People are swearing off gluten left and right. Gluten-free substitutes crowd the grocery shelves.

I admit that I have a personal interest here. I am, after all, a bread baker. It’s dismaying to read that this food I love is the Cause of All Fatness. It’s also very suspicious to me, because people have been eating bread for centuries. Our obesity epidemic is a recent phenomenon. So the assumption that bread is the root of all evil doesn’t make much sense to me.

Now, there is no doubt that certain medical conditions preclude the ingestion of gluten, particularly celiac disease. But for people without that disease, scientists are now warning that gluten avoidance may be bad for their health. This article from the Atlantic Monthly warns that cutting gluten out of our lives may lead to other deficiencies. And that there is no scientific evidence proving that gluten ingestion causes weight gain.

I concede that some people DO lose weight on a gluten-free regime, but that appears to spring from a general improvement in their diet: less fast food, more fresh fruit and veggies. The elimination of bread isn’t the key.

So once again, it’s sensible eating that makes the difference. Not some secret ingredient. There’s no magic bullet.

BBA Challenge #4: Brioche

Published January 8, 2012 by livinggraciously

There is nothing nutritionally redeeming about brioche. It’s basically baked butter–a succulent slice of heart attack. But it was the next bread, so if I was going to do this right, I needed to bake brioche.

The bread once again started with a sponge, a short preferment to get the yeast beasties at work and develop some flavor. I don’t know how much flavor contribution can really be had in 20 minutes of fermentation, but I am determined to follow the directions.

Except I sort of missed the part where the dough had to chill overnight and so got up very early to start the bread and didn’t caffeinate first, and the wheels were coming off the cart pretty darned early.

I think I was still trying to get my head around the whole pound of butter that was going into the bread. And five eggs.

The second direction is to add the rest of the flour and the eggs, and then let the whole thing rest for five minutes so that the gluten can develop.  I got through the mixing, but missed the five minutes part. Instead, I started adding in the butter.

It’s a lot of butter, added one stick at a time.

I have this strange determination to do this whole challenge without using my mixer. Don’t ask me why; I’m just amused by the notion. Brioche, however, is not a bread conducive to hand kneading. In fact, it was rather like kneading a batch of cookie dough:

A very messy operation. And once I had incorporated all the butter, I was supposed to continue kneading for another 5 or so minutes before spreading it on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and putting it in the fridge.

The key phrase here is supposed to. I kind of missed that part, and when I got the dough back out it was still a slippery, formless mess.

Now, there are special brioche pans that make this bread a very special and lovely presentation, but at I am not anticipating much brioche in my future, I opted to go with loaves. The recipe said that it would make three loaves, but I only had enough dough for two, and there was no way that I could “form the loaves according to the [usual instructions].” That would require, you know, form. Which this bread was sadly lacking. I wrestled the two lumps into vaguely loaf-like shapes and smooshed them into the pans, where they were supposed to spend two hours rising.

An hour and a half later, there was no sign of any rising going on.

At this rate, there was no way that anything resembling edible bread was coming from this mess, so I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. I dumped the two loaves back out and began kneading them again. This time, miraculously, gluten did develop. I reformed the loaves and put them back in the pans and gave them another 90 minutes. They hadn’t risen much, but there was some sign of life, so I figured I didn’t have anything to lose and popped them into the preheated oven.

Astoundingly, both loaves sprang nicely in the oven, and came out looking like actual loaves of bread rather than buttery bricks.

The resulting loaf had a rather dense but very tender crumb, and was delicious.

I took a loaf to dinner at a friend’s house, and gave him the leftovers. Our loaf is slowly diminishing, but at about 500 calories a slice, slowly isn’t slowly enough. I’m thinking I should freeze it and only take it out for special occasions.

Because otherwise the special occasion will be our funerals. From the coronaries brought on by this bread!

Henny Penny and me

Published January 5, 2012 by livinggraciously

My problem is that I really need more people around to eat my bread.

I’ve been experimenting with the most effective approach for getting a long, flavor-building rise in my sourdough bread. I’ve tried overnighting it during its initial rise, and in its final rise.¬† Then on New Year’s Eve – when Ferrett sent out one set of invitations for 8pm and the other for 7pm, so I thought I had another hour before people would start showing up – I mixed up a bread but didn’t have a chance to knead it, so it went into the fridge for a 12+ hour autolyse.

It came out really tasty. Light and tender. And the oven spring was so high that it kind of ‘sploded. I’m inclined to say that it is the most successful of the methods.

But there has been nothing scientific about my approach to these breads, so I can’t be sure.

See, at this point, Shelob and I are so comfortable with each other that when I am ready to bake, or when there gets to be too much starter, I just pour some off into a mixing bowl. I eyeball how much starter is there, and add yeast, water and flour strictly according to a “that looks like enough” formula. So sometimes the dough is a little softer, sometimes it’s a little stiffer, sometimes there’s more of it, sometimes the loaf is a bit smaller.

To get a final answer, I need to take a Mythbusters approach: controlled conditions, careful measurements, and side-by-side tastings.

That’s a lot of carbs for a family of two. Who will help me eat my bread?!

Chicken breasts with bacon polenta and vegetables

Published January 2, 2012 by livinggraciously

We had a lovely party for New Year’s Eve. I made absolutely nothing for the party, save for veggie and cheese trays, because I was stricken with a beastly headache during the day. All the cooking and baking plans got cast aside, and instead I got to be grateful simply that it let up so that I could be at my own party.

At the end of the party, there were lots of left over veggies from the two veggie trays. Now, there’s a limited shelf life on a bunch of mixed veggies, and unless you’re going to just keep eating veggies and dip, you’ve got to do something with them. We haven’t managed to do any grocery shopping, meaning that it was “what’s in the cupboard?” time. The answer was that there were some chicken breasts in the freezer. After digging through the cabinets to see what I could devise, I asked Ferrett what sounded better to him: a chicken dish with coconut rice or one featuring polenta. He thought that broccoli would go better with polenta.

I decided to experiment a little, and cooked the polenta in the rice cooker. It worked remarkably well, and made polenta cooking completely simple. Highly recommended.

The chicken breasts were bone-in breasts, so I seasoned them with salt, pepper, and some garlic powder, and sauteed them skin-side down in olive oil until the skins were nicely browned. While they were cooking, I julienned an onion and sorted out the vegetables from the veggie tray, separating out the carrots and bell peppers from the broccoli and cauliflower. (The bell peppers were completely separated to cook completely separately because Ferrett can’t stand the taste of them at all and I love them.) Once the breasts were browned, I put them in a baking pan and into the over and 375. I then sauteed the onions and carrots until the onions were browned, then removed them from the pan and added the broccoli and cauliflower for a very brief sauteing. (If I was doing it again, I would add the cauliflower at the same time as the onions and carrots, as they could have used a little more cooking time.) Once those were done, I removed them and cooked four strips of bacon – which I would have done very first for the bacon fat instead of using olive oil, but I was making this up as I went along.

I stirred about half a cup of fresh grated Parmesan into the polenta, then stirred in the bacon, chopped. I took the baking pan out of the oven, removed the chicken breasts¬† and spooned the polenta into the dish, then nestled the chicken breasts back onto of the polenta and dished the onions and carrots over the chicken breasts – and put the peppers on one end of the dish, so that Ferrett wouldn’t have to eat them – and put the pan back in the oven. I cooked it for 15 more minutes, then added the broccoli and cooked it about 10 more minutes:

The results were delicious!

In addition, I tossed some fresh pineapple chunks with vanilla infused balsamic vinegar, which was a delicious little inspiration.

I’m trying to get more fresh fruits and veggies into our daily menu, so it was great to have just a good start in the leftover veggie tray. And there is definitely enough left over for dinner tomorrow.

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